Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Time Travel and Board games

I've discussed before how time travel is hard, and though there have been several attempts at games based on it, the closest I've seen to one that works really well is Khronos. Khronos is a pretty interesting game, but it's really hard and somewhat tedious to see the implications of your actions.

I had never really planned on trying to design a game about time travel, at least not until I got some kind of good idea for it. A recent (February) Game Design Showdown was about going back in time, and that got me thinking about the subject a little bit. What I came up with was a cooperative game (another genre I haven't really worked on much) idea:

Like so many science experiments, this one went horribly wrong. In a bid for the Nobel Prize, a brilliant but eccentric physicist got a bit overzealous with a new discovery, and inadvertently created a tear in the space-time continuum. This tear is unstable, and in time would grow and eventually unravel space-time altogether - and that would be bad for everyone.

It's up to a team of scientists to find a way to fix space-time before the instability grows too much and the world turns inside out. The only problem is, the tear in space-time has begun to cause 'Rewinds' - instances in which time literally rewinds and the scientists are pushed back to a previous point in their endeavor.

Players work together to navigate a tree of decisions, each leading to 1 of 2 paths. At the end of each branch of the tree is a Result card, some with a favorable result - the scientists fix space-time and save the day... and some less favorable - game over! with each turn there's a chance that the instability of space-time triggers a Rewind, pushing players back some number of decision points. The worse the tear gets, the bigger the Rewind. If time rewinds past the beginning of the game, then that's all she wrote!

The main mechanism of this game was to be that players must make choices with little or no information at first, then as they move on more information becomes available. Then when a Rewind occurs, players can use the newer information in order to re-do a prior choice they made. On a players turn they first roll some dice, and then they can do one of several things - each option might be restricted in some way by the die roll. In addition, whenever the roll totals 7 (or perhaps is over some threshold), a Rewind occurs and players are pushed back along the decision tree some number of spaces. An Instability track indicates how far back the Rewind takes the team, and after the Rewind, the Instability increases (the next Rewind will be bigger).

Today I put a little thought into some details - I envision a deck of 'choice cards' which would be shuffled and dealt out in a triangular 'trellis' pattern. The last (8th) row of the trellis would be made up of Result cards - maybe 5 bad ("game over, you lose") and 3 good ("WIN!"). Maybe 1 of the good cards is extra good, so players can try to find that particular result as opposed to just any of the 3 good result cards for a harder game.

Each decision point has 2 possible outcomes, each leading to one of the decision points in the next row. The point of the game is to navigate through these decision points to one of the Result cards in the 8th row - but of course you want it to be one of the winning Result cards.

Possible actions on your turn would include:

- Peek at some of the Result cards - the closer you are to the 8th row the fewer you look at, narrowing it down. After peeking at them you shuffle them and replace them. Thus if you do it in the beginning, you see that indeed 3 of the 8 cards are 'winners' and 5 are not. If you do it from the third row you look at 6 adjacent result cards... and from the 6th row you look at just 3. They have to be the three you could still reach without rewinding - so if they all are losers then you'll want to rewind and try another path.

- Get resources - based on the die roll maybe you collect certain colored cards which will be needed to progress to the next row.

- Advance - pay the listed cost in cards in order to advance to the next Decision Point (next row). Depending on which of the 2 paths you wish to take you might need a different combination of cards to pay.

- Force Rewind - Players can trigger a rewind, backing up time and moving the group to an earlier decision point - but this of course makes the Instability grow - too much and space-time will unravel.

- Repair Instability - There should be some way (at some times) to repair the instability somewhat, moving the track back, effectively lengthening the game - giving players more time to successfully finish before the space-time continuum unravels.
This could be based in part on arriving at certain cards - the end card could repair the Instability a certain number of units, so maybe you actually have to hit more than one of them. And some cards along the way might do that too. This would also add weight to an action that allows players to look at the 2 upcoming Decision Points, to help decide which direction they want to go: "This one has a Repair icon on it, let's collect the stuff we need to go this way!" Maybe some Decision Points are worse and they cause an instability bump when they're revealed. The Peek action mentioned above could also be used in the midgame, not just to look at the Result cards but any upcoming Decision Points. Maybe look at 1 of the possible Decision Point cards and put it back, or all of the possible Decision Points in a column and then shuffle them.

further thoughts on this will be forthcoming... eventually.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cow Tipping Dev't...Nevermind what I said before!

In my last post I postulated about what makes a Rummy Variant vs simply a set building game, and I had some ideas for Cow Tipping along those lines.

Upon further reflection, I think I need to reverse pretty much all my opinions about those ideas to change Cow Tipping. The Thurn & Taxis mechanism is neat, but I think it's too complicated for this particular game. Perhaps I'll be able to use it in some other game in the future.

Also, building sets on the table is probably more trouble than it's worth - with one notable exception which I'll talk about in a minute.

I had a much simpler thought yesterday, and after trying it was pleased to see that it fixed just about everything I saw as a problem with the game. The only change from the original, as written rules is that instead of filling your hand to 7 cards at the end of your turn, you simply draw 2 cards. Those 2 cards can come from any combination of discard piles and the draw deck - except not both from the same discard pile (though maybe that would be OK too). Here's why this seems to work...

One major problem I saw was that when refilling your hand to 7 cards every turn, you really just want to tip whatever you can as soon as you can to churn through cards. The more cards you draw, the more chance you'll make a set and tip again. There's no additional cost to tip a more expensive Bus an to tip a Car... you should just tip the car if you can and see if you draw a set again to tip the bus. If you did, hurray! If not, drat! It's all just luck. If you draw 1 card at a time waiting to get a big enough set to tip the bus, either you'll get super lucky and the cards you need will come up right away, or you'll lose to someone who tips frequently and draws more cards.

Consider the Draw 2 rule instead. Now if you tip with a 3 card gang, it takes you 3 turns to recover your hand size, while if you tip with a 5 card gang, it takes you almost twice as long. This is fair, because you're likely getting a Bus instead of a Car which is worth more! In addition, each of those turns you're drawing cards which you're more likely to want, not just 5 off the top of the deck that are completely random. You can actually work toward building a set.

When playing this way I really felt a sense of accomplishment when I tipped a vehicle. Like I'd built up to something and then was rewarded for my effort. Also, I often had to choose between tipping a cheaper vehicle now, or continuing to build my gang to get a more expensive Tractor or Bus - and this was a realistic choice, meaning I would realistically be able to build up my Gang. Alternatively, I could have 2 sets going on in my hand, and I could tip something small, preserving the other set I was working on.

Tipping a Bus for 6 cards now meant my hand was decimated and it took a while before I could tip again - which is how it should be!

The fact remains that some players have said the scoring is too complicated. I'm not sure how sold I am on that though. Maybe it's fine the way it is. It's possible the numbers are off or something, but that's a different (and fixable) issue.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rummy Variant vs Set Building

I've been calling Cow Tipping, a card game Tasty Minstrel is planning on releasing next year, a Rummy variant. This is mostly because in the game you are putting together a run or a set like you do in Rummy. The rules as written force you to discard a card, and then allow you to draw one from opponent's discard piles or from the top of the deck (which is like Rummy). Before that happens, if you have a sufficient set or run, you can discard it in order to claim a scoring card (which, obviously, will help you score points). Then you refill your hand to 7 cards.

I've decided that I'm not sure when a game is a Rummy variant and when it is simply a set building game. How many aspects must be similar before a game is considered a Rummy variant? There are specific definitions for "Trick taking" and "Climbing" games - is there such a definition for a Rummy game?

I'm considering trying the following changes in order to inject more control and player choice into this particular set building game, because as written I don't think it feels enough like you're building a set:

Set building on the table in front of you.
Rather than building up these sets and runs in your hand and then discarding them to take a scoring card, I think it might be good to construct the sets on the table in front of you. To keep it simple, you are allowed 1 of each type of set (1 Set and 1 Run), and each turn you can add to them until they are sufficient to exchange for a scoring card. If you cannot add to either of them, then you have to discard one and start a new one. This I think will encourage people to be drawing cards when possible that add to their sets, and to start to build sets that they have cards in hand to add to it with. In addition, this will give players (who are interested in watching for it) a reason to discard 1 card over another - THIS card will hep an opponent, THAT card won't, so I'll discard that one! Currently you can't really know whether THIS card or THAT card are safe to discard, so you just pick one.

Card drawing vs Card playing
Instead of filling your hand every turn, I would like to try a mechanism wherin you draw cards. Borrowing from Thurn & Taxis a little bit, I would like to see players having the opportunity to draw more cards and play fewer in one turn, in order to build up their hand, and in another turn have the opportunity to draw fewer cards and play more. I also want to maintain players having to discard a card for other players to use each turn, so the rule I'll try is that you can either Play 3 then Draw 2... or Play 2 then Draw 3. One card must be played to the discard pile each turn. The other card (or cards) must be played to your sets in play. If they do not legally combine with the cards in play to form a set, then you have to discard what you had and start a new set with the card you play.

This brings up a question I hadn't considered. Suppose you have a red 2, 3, 4 in play, and you have a red 6 in hand but no 5. Can you play the red 6, as it's legally part of a set that is simply unfinished yet? I think so, but you wouldn't be able to cash in that set until it is complete. It seems like it would be really tough if you had to lay down the cards for a Run in order, and there's no similar restriction for the Sets.

The point of these changes, as I mentioned, is to make it feel like you are building a set, and to give players some reason to do one thing over another, while still keeping the game fast paced and light.

Scoring in Rummy games is often based on what cards you have left in hand when someone 'goes out' (and in that case scoring is bad). In Wyatt Earp for example, scoring is based more on majority of each color for which you have sets in play, which is very different than the scoring in Gin Rummy for example. In Cow Tipping, scoring is of course based on the scoring cards you collect during the game. It's sort of another set collection mechanism in that you score more for having more of the same color or type of car. It's been mentioned by players that the scoring is too complicated for the game, and I think that's true - you have to do a lot of math to add up the points you get for sets of cars, then do it again for sets of colors, then add the 2 results together for your total score. I'm not sure what better scoring method there could be, but there's got to be something similar that is easier to calculate.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Another month, another post...

I had resolved to post once a month on this thing, but I've clearly been slacking in that regard. So what's new in Seth's gaming life?

Recent Gaming
In the last month or so I played a lot of games, 66 in June, and 19 so far in July. So what have I been playing?

In Seattle I played a lot of Dominion with Jeremy and Aaron. I haven't played in a while, and it's fun - especially against those guys for some reason. I also played 2 games of Lost Cities: the Board Game (which I like better than Keltis for sure, but it's still mostly luck) with them and Amelia and Emily, a game of Citadels, and 2 games of Masters of Venice.

I picked up Masters of Venice knowing very little about it, but I thought Jeremy and Aaron might like it, I wanted to try it, and hey - at least it was only $35! After buying it I read some stuff online, all of which was mediocre and said the game was very fiddly. I'm happy to report that we liked it pretty well, had a good time talking about it and thinking about it after the first game, and for the most part our play improved in the second game. It is a little annoying to have to adjust a price every time a cube comes into the game, but it's actually not that bad - at least all the tracking makes sense with regard to supply and demand.

The game is one in which you can buy and sell shares of stock in companies, as well as bu, sell, or cash in resource cubes in order to make money or fulfill 'orders' - selling and fulfilling orders increases the value of the stock in the associated companies (there's 1 company per type of resource cube). The idea is to make the most money. There seems to be a lot of ways to go about that, so I think the game could be really interesting. I'd have to play it a few more times to know weather or not it has any kind of staying power, but it's certainly worth a few plays at least.

I also played a game or 2 of Race for the Galaxy while in Seattle... for the first time in ages. I don't like that game too much anymore, but it was still fun to play vs Jeremy. Race and Dominion have fallen by the wayside for me because I think Glory to Rome is simply a better game of the same scope. I got Jeremy to play a couple games of it, but he didn't like it too much. that surprised me, because I thought my Magic friends would really like GtR and take to it more easily than they did. Tyler and Mike like it, but they didn't grasp it as easily as I thought they would. Jeremy really didn't seem to like it that much at all - I think he prefers Race and Dominion.

At KublaCon in May I played a game of Small World, the remake of Vinci. I liked Vinci a lot, and played a bunch online a while back on Ludagora.net. In Seattle I played Small World 4 times... it's good, and fun - I keep going back and forth on weather I like it better than Vinci or not. Some parts yes, some parts no. I think the graphic design is pretty bad, but some of the other changes are good for the game. I don't think it's something i need to run out and buy, and if i were buying, I'd probably rather own Vinci (though I may not believe that as much as I used to).

I played a few other games here and there, but the main thing I've been playing has been unpublished prototypes. As head of development for Tasty Minstrel, as well as a game designer myself, it follows that I would play a lot of prototypes - and if you've ever read my blog before this should be no surprise. This is, after all, a game design blog!

It's been a long time since I have worked on any of my own games. I spent some time in June thinking about two games which I grabbed out of the KublaCon game design contest - one was called Streets of Cairo, which was like a heavy Carcassonne, and the other was called Tomes of Knowledge, which had a really neat theme but was in effect a "Take That!" style card game which I didn't think fit the theme (or at least, didn't fit the theme the way I thought it would and wanted it to). I wrote up a lot of comments on Tomes of Knowledge, more or less completely redesigning it the way I might go about it, and sent those comments off to the designers to use or not use as they see fit. If they update the game and want me to look at it again, I'll be happy to, but until then there's really no reason for me to think about it anymore.

That's especially true since Tasty Minstrel has 2 games "on the list" for next year which I have prototypes of and need to work on...

Cow Tipping is a rummy variant which, currently, has a sort of disconnect between complexity of scoring and complexity of game. It's a very cute them, and the designer has done a beautiful job with the prototype (and would be doing his own art for the game, I believe). I'm also exploring ways to make it feel more like you have the opportunity to build a set - that may or may not pan out.

Belfort is a Worker Placement / Area Control game which is really good and also has a really cute theme. Well, the theme itself isn't anything unusual, but the characters in the game are super-cute :) My main challenge there is to make sure that a certain part of the game (a part that is different every time and therefore makes for a fun, replayable game) works right and is all balanced and everything, and maybe (though it's not clear if it's necessary) to make sure the worker placement portion of the game is strong enough... or at least that the different parts of the game are appropriately involved and interesting, and anything uninteresting gets cut or streamlined out of the way so as not to drag the game length out.

I feel really good about Belfort, as it's the kind of game I like to play, and it's a solid design that is fun and not just like other games out there. I've played it twice since Friday, and I've been giving it a lot of thought and corresponding with the designers. It feels good!

Th art is almost done for Terra Prime, and frankly I can't wait to see it! I want to get some posted on the Tasty Minstrel website as soon as possible. The art for Homesteaders is largely complete, and I think Ariel did a fantastic job with it. After the TP art is done, there's not much to do except sit and wait for the manufacturers to do their thing... I'm getting a little antsy!